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Enchanting Greek Island Worked Its Magic for Conversion

A PLACE OF HEALING FOR THE SOUL: Patmos; By Peter France; Atlantic Monthly Press; 220 pages, $24

July 13, 2002|PHILIP ZALESKI | Philip Zaleski is the editor of the annual Best Spiritual Writing series for HarperSanFrancisco and is the coauthor, with Carol Zaleski, of the forthcoming "The Language of Paradise: Prayer in Human Life and Culture."

For 1,600 years--since St. Augustine, bent over his episcopal desk in the North African port city of Hippo, completed his "Confessions" around AD 401--tales of religious conversion have been a flourishing literary form, producing through the centuries a bumper crop of classics.

John Bunyan's "Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners," Leo Tolstoy's "A Confession" and C.S. Lewis' "Surprised by Joy" are just a few of the genre's highlights, each offering as much high drama as the fictions for which these authors are better known.

That conversion stories pack a punch is not surprising, for God is the driving force in many a life, and coming to terms with that force often entails dropping to one's knees before an unfamiliar altar.

For as Augustine and his literary offspring have made clear, conversion entails more than adopting a new set of beliefs. It means taking on a new mind and a new heart--and often, as Peter France demonstrates in his lovely new memoir, "A Place of Healing for the Soul," a new country as well.

If ever anyone was primed for a spiritual sea change, it was France. As host of the popular British religious television program "Everyman," he had spent 15 years traveling the world, living out of hotel rooms, seeing his wife when his schedule allowed.

He was burned out, and increasingly uneasy about his personal beliefs. A die-hard free thinker, he remained aloof from all spiritual practice, though adept at portraying its many forms sympathetically.

But France's wife was a devout Christian, a convert to Orthodoxy, and France was beginning to suspect that he liked religious people more than he did his fellow skeptics. "They had more weight, more substance," he writes. "They were more emotionally generous and seemed to lack spite."

The catalyst for change came in the form of an invitation from a friend, suggesting that France and his wife visit the Greek isle of Patmos for a few weeks. At first France was put off by the local residents, by their loud voices, late-night parties, heavy smoking and marketplace squabbles.

But he was entranced by the island itself. Small wonder, for Patmos has always been a place of enchantment, a land seemingly poised halfway between Earth and some more mysterious spiritual realm.

According to Greek myth, the island slumbered underwater for millenniums, until raised by Zeus as a gift for Artemis, goddess of wild animals, vegetation and the hunt. This pagan pedigree pales, however, beside Patmos' importance as the place where in AD 95 the evangelist John wrote down his great vision, destined to join the Christian biblical canon as the Book of Revelation.

To France, Patmos was "a place of power." He fell in love with its rugged landscapes, its virginal light, its remoteness from his former life. He clambered over its mountains and ravines, explored its villages, monasteries and convents. He discovered the joys of ouzo, the importance of the fakelo (bribe), the passion with which the natives relished the present moment.

He and his wife bought a house in town, for which they paid 6 million drachmas in cash, transferred, with typical Patmian casualness, in a plastic shopping bag. Later they exchanged that dwelling for a mountain cottage, a rundown structure without electricity and running water but with plenty of rats and scorpions, and a breathtaking view of the sea.

Eventually the island worked its wonders on France's soul. He reread John's Gospel, this time as if it were true, in keeping with the venerable premise of credo ut intellegam: "I believe in order that I may understand."

He came to see Orthodoxy as a way of love and a guardian of tradition, and he came to believe, at least provisionally, in spiritual realities--in good and evil, in God and Christ. Finally, he was baptized, barefoot and shrouded, at 57, uncertain of the absolute truth of his faith but happy to embrace its beauty and serenity.

France's conversion is deeply touching. His sense of unworthiness, of nagging doubt, of willingness to plunge ahead regardless, gives to the traditional conversion tale a modern spin. This is religious discovery for a postmodern generation, for those unwilling to embrace the rock-hard convictions of the past.

The book is not without its faults: France's criticisms of non-Orthodox Christianity border on caricature, and he has a penchant for sweeping generalizations. ("The difference between East and West here seems to be that the East is more at home with mysticism.")

Often he ascribes to Orthodoxy a way of life, a blend of earthiness, simplicity and indifference to clock time that seems rather to be a staple of all Mediterranean island cultures, as common to Catholic Malta as to Orthodox Patmos.

But these are blemishes on an otherwise polished performance. One worries, in fact, that this appealing book could draw others to Patmos, and thus steal away a bit of the island's pristine magic. But such may be the ironic price--worth paying, this time around--of baring one's soul to the world.

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